Deirdre O’Connell gave one of my favorite performances on a New York stage in 2016, and she returns in this latest of my annual lists of favorite theatrical performances (not all of them literally on New York stages this year.) The list below is alphabetical, with explanations for my choices largely excerpted from my reviews. If some individual performances stood out, 2021 was really the Year of the Ensemble, deserving of special recognition because of the added challenges and risks of performing together. So let’s begin with them:
Uzo Aduba as the devilish owner of a truck stop sandwich shop and Ron Cephas Jones as a saintly sandwich maker are both well-known for their screen roles, and they are both terrific in Lynn Nottage’s comedy. But it became an exquisite ensemble thanks to the three other actors, portraying formerly incarcerated employees – Edmund Donovan, Reza Salazar, and Kara Young – each of whom has been on my lists of favorites in previous years. They prove themselves adept in comic timing, while retaining the credibility of characters grounded in reality, ones with whom we can empathize.
If there are must-see moments by individual cast members in this gender-bending revival of Sondheim’s musical — Patti LuPone singing The Ladies Who Lunch, Christopher Fitzgerald getting high, and Matt Doyle getting married – it would feel unjust to pry them apart from a show whose very title honors the entire cast, and showcases ensemble performing.
The Lehman Trilogy
There is no denying the extraordinary acting of the three performers — Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and (in the Broadway production) Adrian Lester — over the three plus hours of the play. They first portray the original three Lehman brothers who arrived in America in the mid-19th century, and then a century’s worth of their descendants…and all the people with whom they come into contact with, every man, woman and child. Lester, for example, portray Herbert Lehman first as a silent three-year-old, then later as an outspoken nine-year0old, and then to the governor of the State of New York.
Mornings at Seven
One of the pleasures in this latest revival of Paul Osborne’s 1939 play was how many of the nine cast members could fit one of those “where are they now” features
The eleven cast members of this, the only in-person immersive play I saw this year, deserve kudos for keeping in character and improvising while re-creating Election Night, 1929, in which Fiorello H. (“The Little Flower”) LaGuardia tried to wrest the mayoralty from the incumbent Jimmy (“Beau James”) Walker
Thoughts of a Colored Man
Seven Black men portray seven Black men in a play that’s meant to emphasize drives home the point hat the universe of Black men is not monolithic; it’s kaleidoscopic. For all their diversity, the performers, many of them familiar faces on TV or the movies convey a sense of camaraderie that is the essence of ensemble acting.
Three Days of Rain
Patricia Clarkson, John Slattery and Bradley Whitford returned to the roles they originated Off-Broadway a quarter century ago in Richard Greenburg’s Three Days of Rain. Their performances – yes, even though in a Zoom reading – were the main reason it was worth revisiting this play. All three actors were in their 30s when they first performed these roles, which is roughly the age of all their characters. Now, the men are both white-haired; all three are closer to the age of the characters’ parents .
The six performers who portray the wives of Henry VIII are charismatic and indefatigable as they carry this loud, high-octane show that persuasively impersonates an arena pop rock concert.
Twilight Los Angeles, 1992
Five actors now portray the 40 real-life “characters” whom Anna Deavere Smith interviewed in the aftermath of the L.A. riots and portrayed by herself in earlier productions of her play. Elena Hurst, Francis Jue ,Wesley T. Jones ,Karl Kenzler and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart take up the mantle, with the added advantage of each having enough down time to effect a more complete costume change.
What Happened? The Michaels Abroad
This twelfth and final play in Richard Nelson’s “Rhinebeck Panorama” series, written and performed over the last 11 years, featured many of the same cast members who were in the previous plays, a kind of Nelson repertory company. The point of this production, as the previous productions, was low-key verisimilitude in real time — the characters spent most of their time sitting around a kitchen table, making and consuming a meal – and it would be hard to overstate how essential the performances were in making this conceit work. The very fine actors of “What Happened?” — Charlotte Bydwell, Haviland Morris, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Matilda Sakamoto, Rita Wolf and Yvonne Woods — inhabited their characters far more thoroughly and persuasively than most plays allow.
Clark portrays a 16-year-old girl in “Kimberly Akimbo” with a rare disease that accelerates the aging process, so that she looks 70. It’s uncanny how much Clark as Kim looks like the real teens who play her classmates. Special mention to her frequent scene partner, Justin Cooley, making his New York theater debut (a shoo-in for a Theatre World Award)
Sharon D Clarke
Clarke makes an extraordinary Broadway debut in the title role of a maid in “Caroline, or Change” not just because of her deeply felt, piercingly sung arias, but because of her embodiment of Caroline in her ordinary, everyday moments, down in the heat of the basement doing laundry, or in the heat of the kitchen. If Clarke’s performance can be called weighty, it’s because we see her character as weighed down by her lot in life, by her resentments, and by her fear of a world that’s at the cusp of change – a change that she doesn’t trust.
In “Morning Sun,” Falco depicted a woman named Charlotte “Charley” McBride over a half century of her life. her performance was at its best – extraordinary, searing — at both the beginning and the end of the play, when she was portraying Charley in old age, soon to die.
Returns to the stage in the solo show “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” and is wonderful not just as the diminutive sex therapist,but as all the characters she comes into contact with.
In “Trouble in Mind,” LaChanze, best known for her musical performances, here dominates this straight play portraying Wiletta Mayer, an actress who has spent more than a quarter century playing mammies and maids and has finally had enough. During rehearsals for an insufferably dopey play-within-the-play that is meant to say something about lynching but is actually just full of stereotypes, LaChanze as Wiletta at first pretends to be cheerful and accommodating, then stews; spaces out; seethes, and finally publicly clashes with the white director,
The actress made her Broadway debut in “Chicken & Biscuits,” and made the most of the colorful, comic character Beverly.
In “Dana H,” Deirdre O’Connell did little more than sit on a chair, and lip-sync to a tape of a woman recounting the horrific story of her abduction. But the performance made the play exhilarating.
For years, O’Connell has been a mainstay of Off-Broadway. In every play in which I’ve seen her perform, she seems effortlessly persuasive, turning her role into an anchor, from the hippy New England teacher in Circle Mirror Transformation to the hardcore Westerner in The Way West to the crazy, haunted Southerner in Terminus. Her performance in “Dana H.” was impressive for its precision: Every verbal stumble and stutter is perfectly coordinated, every gesture and facial expression just right. But her accomplishment is not just technical; as in her previous roles, she manages to inhabit her character, and elicit our empathy. In this case, she does so without even using her own voice. O’Connell has been on Broadway before, but this role (for which she won an Obie when it was Off-Broadway in 2020 at the Vineyard) may finally bring her the attention she’s long deserved.
Page portrayed all of Shakespearea’s villains, in “All The Devils Are Here” a kind of guided tour through what he calls the Bard’s “two decade exploration of evil,” going more or less chronologically. Filmed onstage in D.C.’s empty, suitably dark (and, one imagines, chilly) Sidney Harman Hall, Page performed the soliloquies with passion and precision, and is especially impressive in navigating the two-character scenes. One awe-inspiring scene involved in effect three characters: Prince Hal and Falstaff take turns mimicking Hal’s father the King.
Arturo Luis Soria.
In “Ni Mi Madre,” the solo show that Soria wrote, he portrays his colorful mother, a portrait that’s’ more complex than just a comic portrait, although it’s certainly funny.
Yazbeck captures the casual elegance of Cary Grant in “Flying Over Sunset” without falling into a too- literal impersonation, But it’s his indescribably vibrant dancing that makes his performance a favorite. Special mention of his frequent dance partner, 14-year-old Atticus Ware, who portrays Cary Grant’s younger self Archie Leach, whom Cary hallucinates during his acid trips.